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How One Police Department Is Adjusting to the Pandemic

How One Police Department Is Adjusting to the Pandemic

Atlanta Police Foundation president Dave Wilkinson discusses police work in the time of COVID-19.

Updated April 15, 2020; 4:00pm

Each day across America, thousands upon thousands of essential workers put themselves in danger to keep the rest of us safe. We often hear about healthcare heroes like doctors and nurses, since they’re on the front lines of disease response. But from supermarket cashiers to sanitation workers, there are scores of others who keep our country going day in and day out.

Police officers are one such group. Sharecare spoke with Dave Wilkinson, president of the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, to find out what life is like for an Atlanta officer during the COVID-19 crisis. Wilkinson, who’s been in law enforcement for more than 35 years, addressed how the pandemic is affecting officers, why having a police presence is so important right now—and what we can do to best help police during the outbreak.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How has the pandemic affected the Atlanta Police Department?
A: We have a new situation where we’re not only trying to keep our city safe, but we’re trying to keep our police officers safe from contracting the virus. And so, it’s a very challenging time right now.

There’s been a vast change in the standard operating procedures (SOPs) since we began this crisis response. That includes things like the police officers now are writing citations instead of arresting folks for minor non-violent offenses. It means the officers are wearing masks and gloves. We’re sanitizing all the patrol cars and sanitizing police precincts. 

But make no mistake, when it really comes down to it, a police officer arresting someone has to, in many cases, physically arrest that person, which means they have to arrest them and put them in a patrol car before they can affix a mask to the suspect. So, they run the risk of being infected before they even do whatever the protocol is.

And not only do you have concerns for the physical health of the officers, but we have concerns for the mental health of the officers. Obviously, there’s a great deal of stress. Most of the citizens of Atlanta are staying at home, following the orders of the mayor and the governor and protecting their families. Well, these essential workers are out as first responders, engaging with everyone. And social distancing is not possible. 

These police officers have to go home every night to their families. They have the same concerns that I do and that everyone else does: “Am I going to contract this virus and take it home and give it to my family, to my loved ones?”

Q: What are the biggest differences between your job today and three weeks ago?
A: It’s changed dramatically over the last three to four weeks. And we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three to four weeks. 

I certainly feel a lot better about the next three to four weeks because of the partnerships that we’ve formed, the collaborations that were involved, the SOPs that we have in place, like sanitizing all the precincts.

So, I feel much better about it as we go forward, but the bottom-line answer is: No one knows what the future holds here. No one knows exactly how this is going to continue to evolve, but we’ll continue to battle it every day.

Q: How has stay-in-place impacted crime in Atlanta, and even around the country?
A: Crime is down about 20 percent across the country. And Atlanta is no exception. But that’s just in the last three-and-a-half or four weeks. What we have to be prepared for is the next wave. 

As you can imagine, everything is in place right now for crime to go up in this city and every other city in the country. It’s in place, and it will happen. There is no question about that. 

So, the challenge here is: Are we ready for it? Are we being proactive about it? Are we keeping the officers on the street? Are we continuing to create deterrence through police visibility and cameras and other things that we will need so desperately? 

What we have to protect against is being reactive instead of proactive. And that is basically not pulling back resources, pulling back manpower. Then ultimately crime goes up through the roof, and then we’re all struggling to figure out how to get our arms around it. 

Q: How has Atlanta pulled together during this time?
A: In my 22 years in the Secret Service, I worked in every major city, and I have never seen a city like Atlanta. The way it pulls together, the leadership from our mayor and our public servants together with the private sector leadership—it’s just unbelievable.

As a quick example, we have an initiative called Feed the Frontline, which is where many of our nonprofits have come together to feed medical first responders—and we’ve included police officers in that. So, we’ve had companies step up just left and right. Every day I’m getting a phone call from a different company or a different restauranteur or someone who wants to figure out how they can pitch in.

Q: How is the police department syncing up with other responders like the fire department and EMTs?
A: Ultimately, the key is the police have got to have a close working relationship with all of these folks. The mayor has a cabinet meeting most every day where she brings all of the leadership from these various components of the city together to talk about how they are interweaving their operations, and most importantly how they’re communicating. As you can imagine, communication during a crisis is the most important thing. 

Q: How important is it to say thank you to support police?
A: Thanks for asking that. Because that is critically important. I mean, police officers are selfless public servants out there serving their community for little pay, risking their lives every day. And I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. 

Now we have a scenario where they’re out not only risking their lives, but they’re risking their health and their family’s health, as well. And let’s make no mistake—we don’t really know what the effects of this will be a month or two from now, or a year or two from now on these officers and these other front-line workers

So, these officers are having to live with that. They understand that. They’re out there certainly fighting the good fight every day to keep our city safe.

Q: Can you talk about the new normal in Atlanta?
A: There’s a lot of conversation right now about coming out of this virus on the other side, reopening the economy, reopening businesses—what is the new normal going to be as this opens up? And quite honestly, no one knows. 

I think the new normal will be what it’s going to be, based on the evolution of this process. And I think that’s the same for public safety. I think we’re going to continue to evolve our SOPs.

Q: Is there a silver lining? How does the crisis push people to be on their feet and think of new ways of doing things?
A: The resiliency of our country has been tested, the resiliency of our first responders has been tested, the resiliency of our public safety workers has been tested like never before—at least since 9/11. 

I think that the silver lining in this will be we will come out of this stronger than ever before, better prepared than ever before, better organized than ever before.

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